Don't Go In The Water, Again: Chris Kentis' frightening "Open Water"
by Jason Guerrasio
As the summer heads into the home stretch, what better way to end it than seeing a film that will keep you out of the water. Toying with our most primal fears and reminding us how puny we are against the power of nature, "Open Water" may make you walk out of the theater still clenched to your armrests. Based on true events of divers stranded at sea, the film's horrific premise and realistic storytelling have caused many to describe it as "Jaws" meets "The Blair Witch Project."
Set in an undisclosed tropical location, Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) are taking a much-needed vacation. Avid divers, the couple decide to take a diving tour of a reef twenty miles off shore. Splitting up from the group to explore the reef, they surface to find the tour boat is gone. Floating in shark-infested waters armed only with their knowledge of what's beneath from watching "Shark Week" and "Disasters At Sea," the two must try to find a way to be rescued before becoming lunch.
After a competitive bidding war at Sundance this year, Lions Gate Films came out on top and are confident that "Open Water" can continue the profitable stake LGF has had in the horror genre (their top earners last year were Eli Roth's "Cabin Fever" and Rob Zombies' "House of 1,000 Corpses"). "I think other people looked at the film and said boy wouldn't it be great if it were bigger in this way, or different in this way, we looked at the film and said this is a great film," says Peter Block, president of home entertainment, acquisitions/new media, at Lions Gate. "This isn't a horror movie; this is a horrifying movie because this could happen. It's unlikely a guy wielding a chainsaw is going to come to your house, but you know if you're a diver this is what you worry about. This is very real."
Shot over the span of two years on weekends and vacations, Chris Kentis and his wife, producer Laura Lau, made the film with $130,000 of their own cash, two DV cameras, two actors, and a herd of sharks. They talked to indieWIRE contributor Jason Guerrasio about making the film, and how their low-budget "shark movie" has blossomed into the one of the potential sleeper films of the summer.
indieWIRE: Let's set the record straight. How much truth is based in this story?
Chris Kentis: It's based on a story that I found in a dive newsletter. We did research and found what could have possibly happened out there. I did a lot of research on various men who are left at sea at wartime, like the USS Indianapolis. And we also used our own experiences as divers. What was pertinent to us was how it happened, so the characters are fictitious, because they weren't pertinent to the story that we were telling. As is the location, which we purposely tried to keep ambiguous.
iW: Why was that?
Laura Lau: We wanted to create our own location so we shot in the Bahamas, we shot in the Grenadines, we shot in the Virgin Islands, we shot in Mexico. [Also] we didn't want to hurt anyone's tourist trade. We didn't want anyone to think, oh, if I go to the Bahamas I'm going to get injured by sharks. We wanted to disguise that as much as we could.
iW: When did you come up with the idea to use real sharks?
Kentis: That was from the start. I take pride in the fact that we really wanted to treat the sharks differently then what I've seen in other films. Pretty much any film with a shark is kind of the same thing, somebody falls in the water and the shark rips them apart, we wanted to take a more realistic approach.
iW: When did you start thinking of making the film?
Kentis: We knew we wanted to make a digital film around 2000, the story happened in the late 90s and I was aware of it then, but much more of it came down to when to make a digital film. That was the turn on. To make a digital movie and have total creative control and challenge ourselves creatively and have the freedom to experiment, and not answer to anybody. Most stories are probably better told in a more polished, Hollywood kind of fashion, in our mind there were only certain stories that you can make with digital video, it was important to us that we found a story that we thought could work, and this story came to mind. Again, because I have a passion for the subject, I did a lot of research and it kind of poured out of me. I wrote the initial script in six days. Once that happened, I brought it to Laura and we worked on it together for a period of time, but even then I'd say we had a pretty workable draft relatively quickly.
Lau: And also we wanted to use the medium to our advantage and part of that aesthetic is a documentary sense of realism, so using real sharks and casting unknowns was key to us. It was about making it as real as possible.
Kentis: We had a good sense that this was something that we could capture and we immediately did our research to make sure that we could get the best people in the business for safety reasons. It was all part of the formula, to try to do something Hollywood's not really interested in exploring right now. Everything's done CG, and we wanted to try to make this more of a 70s film experience when stunt men used to do things and we knew shooting in this format and the way the real sharks moved there would be no doubt in the audiences mind that these are the real thing and our actors are right up there bumping up into them. One of the keys to the film was to try to show everything through the point of view of the two main characters, it's the case of what you don't see can be scarier than what you can see.
iW: What did the actors have to go through to prepare for the shoot?
Lau: During the audition process we took the actors to the pool and had them dive, we got them certified, and we went and shot in the Bahamas -- because we wanted to work with Stuart [Cove] -- where we knew we were in the hands of total experts. That's where a chunk of our budget went because safety was really important to us.
Kentis: Anything with sharks in it in the last ten years Stuart's been there. All the recent Bond films to "Deep Blue Sea" so he's kind of the go-to-guy.
iW: Tell me about your festival experience?
Lau: Well, we went to the Hamptons [International Film Festival] and the film wasn't completely finished but Rajendra Roy [Hamptons director of programming] was really excited about the movie and so we went there really under the radar and excited to see how people would respond.
Kentis: It wasn't the final cut. We were working in such a vacuum for such a long time and they were so enthusiastic it just seemed like; 'yeah lets see how an audience feels about it'.
Lau: And much to our surprise there were more people there than we had realized -- Variety was there -- gave us a heart attack, it certainly was not being shown in it's best light, it was an output literally from our home computer. But Variety gave us a very nice review and after that some people suggested that we should apply to Sundance and we did and we got in much to our surprise because we weren't a premiere. We were really shocked. [The film screened in the Sundance American Spectrum section.]
Kentis: This is as hand made a film as you can get. We did everything together. I'm listed as writer/director because this is a story I was really passionate about and I spearheaded it, but the truth is we really wrote, directed, did everything together. The only other crew was her sister, who's a lawyer, she's not in the film business, so it was the two actors and with the exception of the two days we spent with the shark experts and the day and a half we spent with the boat filled with extras that was it. It was a three-man crew with two actors and a boat captain.
Lau: Our Sundance experience was one of those unbelievable fairy tale stories. Everything happened so fast our heads were spinning. They invited our film to be one of the two films to be screened for the volunteers, so we had to change our flight and we showed up in the afternoon, we had the screening that night for the volunteers then we had a Friday night screening, Saturday morning we had a screening and that was it, by that evening we sold our film.
iW: When did you realize the film was starting to turn heads?
Kentis: It's crazy because when we sold the film we thought, all right we can hang out the rest of the time and see films and relax, but we were running around crazy the whole time. People throw you in little rooms and I remember in one room Isabella Rossellini was sitting in a chair and they put me in the seat when she left and I was like, "What am I keeping the seat warm for her until she gets back?" But then right in front of me was someone asking me questions and pointing a camera in my face.
iW: Have you gotten into any pinch-me-now moments?
Kentis: Well, I did the Craig Kilborn show. That was a trip. I think I'm also doing Letterman.
Lau: We did a photo shoot for Rolling Stone and the CBS morning show was there filming the behind the scenes stuff.
Kentis: And Lions Gate has just been great to us. I mean I could never believe this film would be shown in the amount of screens it's going to play in. It's unbelievable how much money they're putting into the marketing of the film, I was like, 'Hey guys, just give me that money and I'll go out and make the sequel'."